Sunday, 26 June 2011

CRYPT: The Gallows Curse

First of all, let's get one thing out of the way.  Yes, Andrew Hammond has a brother who happens to be a presenter on a car show, with a fondness for leather jackets and motorbikes.  Yes, his main character, Jud Lester, is a dark-haired young man with a fondness for leather jackets and motorbikes.  There is no point in making these sorts of comparisons, but I suppose it is inevitable, human nature being what it is...

Ahem.  My ineloquent point, is let's judge something on its own merits, rather than its connections.  At least, we shall try.

There is a lot to like about 'The Gallows Curse', the first in a new series.  A millionaire is devastated by the loss of his wife at the hands of ghosts, and the subsequent arrest and incarceration of his son, wrongly accused of the crime.  In response he sets up an organisation designed to investigate paranormal activity, comprising of teenage agents, because they can detect things which adults can't.  To be perfectly honest, I'm not entirely sure why this is.

Comparisons have already been made to the CHERUB series, which I'm not entirely comfortable with.  Firstly, the agents of CHERUB are children.  They start basic training at ten years old.  Even by this point, most of them have a good understanding of martial arts.  Some have the basics of a second language.  In contrast, CRYPT agents are recruited at age sixteen.  They are legally adults.  However, the main difference is that Muchamore is rather more gifted at world building.  He has stated that he dislikes the quote on the covers which reads, 'You'll completely wish it was true.'  But the truth is, this is because it is completely believable.  Muchamore has put so much thought into his secret organisation - the basic training, the mission briefs, the headquarters, the history.  There's even an ethics committee!  He makes it as easy as possible for the reader to suspend their disbelief.
CRYPT?  Not so much.  There's a mention of visiting schools in order to find the brightest, most promising potential agents.  There's not much mention of the training received - just a reference to 'poring over books' and 'simulations'.  Agents are not given full briefs, simply told, 'this has happened, go check it out'.  There's mention of MI5, but not quite on the level of CHERUB.  However the thing that bothered me the most is the element of secrecy.

There is none.  Muchamore builds a world where officially, his agents do not exist.  Only two people are automatically aware of it - the prime minister, and the head of the security services.  MI5 agents go through rigorous security checks before they are told about it, and only then when it's absolutely necessary.  The reason it works is because it lacks credibility.  James Adams is told very early on, should you leave, who would believe you?

CRYPT has none of this.  The public are told that paranormal investigators are on the case.  Jud's face even turns up on the front covers of the papers!  Now I don't know anything about the security services, but even I know that this should be the end of his career!  Something like this is even referenced to have actually happened in the CHERUB series.

While we're touching on the negativity, I'll mention Jud's back story.  He's accused of the murder of his mother, and is sent to a young offender's institution.  I'm sorry, but I don't buy that a fourteen-year-old would be accused of something like this without a shred of evidence beyond the circumstantial.  I also didn't really like the attempt to give ghosts a scientific explanation.  I didn't understand it, or the 'ghost busting' equipment used.  Perhaps I'm being thick.  Or perhaps I just prefer the idea that ghosts cannot be explained in a rational sense.  They're not, they're spiritual.  They are here for a reason, but it's personal to them.  I understand what Hammond's trying to do - appeal to the Young Bond fans with fancy equipment which only the science nerds fully understand.  But I don't think it's needed.  It's explained that CRYPT agents already have a sensory perception which is the most important item in their arsenal.  For the most part, James Adams got by on his brains and sheer nerve.  I'm struggling to remember if he ever had fancy equipment.  The only thing I can think of is that (admittedly very clever) stab-proof clothing.  But even then we weren't given long descriptions of how it worked...

I think that now might be a good time to move on to the positives.  The central plot is cleverly written, and I like the way in which the story lines of the ghosts all come together.  Questions are raised and answered in a manner imminently satisfying.  The main villain, Zakis, does stray into comic book territory, but he's perfectly boo-able (are there really people in the world that unpleasant?).  There's also political intrigue in corrupt politicians and bent police officers.  Well done to Hammond for having humans, not ghosts, be the real villains in the story.

Not that this should suggest that the ghosts aren't villainous.  They are.  One of the best things about the book are the descriptions of the ghosts.  They're gruesome, terrifying beings.  Hammond certainly does not stint on the blood, gore and gross-out factor.  Others are immeasurably sad.  One manages to be quite charming.  But one thing's for sure - something or someone has caused their unrest, and it is this mystery that principally kept me reading.

I also like Hammond's characterisation.  He gives lots of detail into people's thoughts, feelings and motivations.  Even people introduced at the start of a chapter only to be killed a few pages later give the reader some idea of their life and personality.  This is something Stephen King excels at - I would say it's the best thing about his writing.  Along with the plot, the same applies here.

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